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The Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics

January 26, 2018

The Great Awakening was a Christian evangelical revival that swept through the American colonies prior to the American Revolution.

In the early 1700s, the thirteen colonies in America, which had formed distinct religious identities, encountered population growth, geographic expansion, and new ideas.  The influx of European immigrants to America expanded settlements beyond existing boundaries and into the frontier where few ministers and churches existed.  Immigrants brought various beliefs and Christian denominations with them, and existing churches and parishes could no longer contain the settlers and their views.  In addition, many colonists became economically independent and prosperous by obtaining free or cheap land and by their labor and industry.  Such events at the time fostered a new attitude, says ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr in The Kingdom of God in America, of “practical individualism.”  These changes made the colonies more religiously diverse and pluralistic, introduced religious competition, and challenged assumptions about state church establishments.  The colonies, says Niebuhr, saw “a new world of emancipated individuals who had become their own political masters to an uncommon degree,” where “absolute individuals had replaced absolute kings and absolute churches.”  It was onto this scene that a Christian evangelical revival arrived that would significantly impact culture, society, and politics in colonial America:  the Great Awakening.

The Great Awakening was an evangelical revival of Christianity that swept through the American colonies in the early to mid 1700s and influenced societal changes in religion and politics.  The revival was called “great,” say historians, because it affected many regions and aspects of colonial life, and it was an “awakening because it led to increased spiritual life and devotion among Americans.  The Awakening, says historian Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, had European roots among German immigrants thankful “for their delivery from European poverty and their happy coming into the Promised Land.”  It was influenced by the European pietist movement that began in German and Prussian principalities and spread to the Netherlands and England at the turn of the 1700s.  It represented the first time non-English-speaking immigrants influenced American intellectual life.

Pietism, a German concept, emphasized … 

Several leaders were prominent in the Great Awakening.  It began largely with Puritan Congregational minister Solomon Stoddard of Northampton, Massachusetts, and German Reformist minister Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey.  Stoddard and Frelinghuysen held revival meetings that sparked many dramatic religious conversions.  Others then preached on being “born again.”  Two key “intercolonial” leaders of the Awakening were Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards and Anglican pastor George Whitefield.

Cutting across denominational lines, the Awakening spread through rural areas and towns in all regions.  During the peak of revival in the 1740s, churches grew daily.  In New England, 25,000 to 50,000 people joined churches out of a population of 300,000, with 3 out of 4 colonists likely affected.

The Great Awakening moved pre-revolutionary colonists toward greater regard for human dignity, equality, and individual rights; religious pluralism and religious tolerance; a democratic and independent spirit; and a shared identity rooted in Bible-based beliefs and values.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source:  Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty – Consent of the Governed
2. The Religious Landscape of the Thirteen Colonies in the Early 1700s
3.  Great Awakening Emerges in Early America – Impacting Religion, Society, Politics
4.  Jonathan Edwards:  Theologian of the Great Awakening
5.  George Whitefield:  Evangelist of the Great Awakening
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  “Born Again” Personal Spiritual Conversion
9.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
10.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
11.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
12. Great Awakening Principle:  Purpose for Just Civil Government
13. Great Awakening Effects on American Religion:  A New Church Landscape
14. Great Awakening Effects on Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
15.  Great Awakening Effects on American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 5, Part 1, Activity 3:  Personal Connection to Spiritual Revival, p. 178-179.  MS-HS.

Personal Connection to Spiritual Revival…

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

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Published by: The Founding

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